Many of us have trouble accepting ourselves exactly as we are. Personality stays the same, and yet it changes over a lifespan. The ebb and flow of human experience come with social challenges and the development of a confident level of self-worth. Self-acceptance is a contributing factor in the improved overall psychological wellbeing of everyone, especially students.
What is the Meaning of Self-Acceptance?
Self-acceptance is exactly what its name suggests: the state of complete acceptance of oneself. True self-acceptance is embracing who we are, without any qualifications, conditions, or exceptions. For an academic definition:
It’s not easy to accept the things that we desperately want to change about ourselves; however—counterintuitively—it is only by truly accepting ourselves that we can even begin the process of meaningful self-improvement. In other words, we must first acknowledge that we have undesirable traits and habits before we start on our journey to improvement.
To begin working on ourselves, the first step is not just self-acceptance, but unconditional self-acceptance. It’s relatively easy to accept ourselves when we just did something great—won an award, fell in love, or started a fantastic new job—but accepting ourselves at our lowest and with our faults and flaws in stark relief is the real mark of unconditional self-acceptance.
Unconditional self-acceptance is understanding that you are separate from your actions and your qualities. We accept that we have made mistakes and that we have flaws, but we do not let them define us. We accept that, as fallible human beings, we are less than perfect. We will often perform well, but we will also err at times… We always and unconditionally accept ourselves without judgment.
Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is more closely associated with psychological effects than self-acceptance. While it is an important piece in the global understanding of an individual, it does not alone create a psychological well human being. Self-esteem refers to how we feel about ourselves—whether we feel we are generally good, worthwhile, and valuable—while self-acceptance is simply acknowledging and accepting that we are who we are. Full self-acceptance can lay the foundations for positive self-esteem, and the two frequently go hand-in-hand, but they concern two different aspects of how we think and feel about ourselves.
What does self-acceptance look like? Examples (Situations)
How do we know when we have “reached” self-acceptance? “Can we look in the mirror and truly accept the unique, wonderful work-in-progress person staring back at us?”
We will know that we have achieved our goal of self-acceptance when we can look at ourselves in the mirror and accept every last bit of what makes us who we are, and when we no longer try to mitigate, ignore, or explain away any perceived faults or flaws—physical or otherwise.
Self-acceptance can look different for each of us, depending on what we have struggled with and which pieces of ourselves we’d rather not think about. Here are some examples of what self-acceptance might look like for a variety of people:
Techniques to enhance self-acceptance:
Practicing relaxed awareness: As opposed to constant distraction, or concentrated focus, relaxed awareness is a soft consciousness of our thoughts, feelings, pain, self-rating, judgment, etc. It’s an awareness of our existence.
To practice: close your eyes for a minute, and instead of pushing thoughts away or trying to focus on our breath, just softly notice our thoughts and feelings and body. We might see negative thoughts or emotions — that’s OK. Just notice them, watch them. Don’t try to turn them into positive thoughts or push them away. We can do this practice for 5 minutes a day, or up to 30 minutes if we find it useful.
When we practice relaxed awareness, we will notice things — negative thoughts, fears, happy thoughts, self-judgments, etc. We tend to want to stop the negative thoughts and feelings, but this is just a suppression, an avoidance, a negating of the negative. Instead, welcome these phenomena, they are a part of our life, and they are OK. Hug the bad feeling, comfort it, let it hang around for a while. They are not bad but are opportunities to learn things about ourselves. When we run from these “bad” feelings, we create more pain. Instead, see the good in them, and find the opportunity.
- Let go of rating ourselves:
Another thing we will notice, once we start to pay attention, is self-rating. Individuals are far too complex to be given a global rating. It has been found that humans who don’t rate themselves either with good or bad have a higher level of psychological wellbeing and move into lives that are flourishing. Those seeking approval in a variety of areas may find discomfort when allowing feedback to fuel self-rating. We rate ourselves compared to others, rate ourselves as “good” or “bad” at different things, or rate ourselves as flabby or too skinny or ugly. That doesn’t mean to let it go, but just to notice it, and see what results from it. After realizing that self-rating repeatedly causes soreness, we will be happy to let it go, in time.
- Compassion & forgiveness for ourselves:
As we notice judgments and self-rating, see if we can turn them into forgiveness and compassion. If we judge ourselves for not doing well at something, or not being good enough at something, can we forgive ourselves for this, just as we might forgive someone else? In some cases, we don’t need to forgive, but instead to understand what was not within our control. Think about what we are grateful for. Include things about ourselves. If we aren’t perfect, what about our imperfection can we be grateful for? Feel free to write a journal about these things each day, or once a week.
- Learn from all parts and emotions:
We tend to try to see our successes as good, and the failures as bad, but what if we see that everything is something to learn from? Even the dark parts — they are parts of us, and we can find interesting and useful things in them too. When we are feeling negative emotions, see them as a separate event, not a part of us, and watch them. Remove their power over us by thinking of them, not as commandments we must follow or believe in, but rather like passing objects.
- Talk to someone:
Sometimes we get so in our heads that it’s difficult to separate our thoughts and emotions, to see things. Talking through these issues with another person — a friend, spouse, co-worker — can help us to understand ourselves better. We can use the talking technique together with one of the above techniques.
- Laugh at it:
How do we stop judging ourselves? By laughing at it. A big laugh helps us look deep, notice our self-judgments, and push through the steps to accepting part of ourselves. This might help when the voice inside our head wants to make us miserable. Giving ourselves the full and unconditional permission to be human opens us up to thoughts and feelings as adventures, rather than self-punishing patterns. Irrational thoughts and cognitive distortions are limiting to personal development and achievement of the good life.